Seminar on “Vietnam and the Major Powers: Multilateralising International Defence and Security Cooperation'”

This seminar assessed Vietnam’s multilateralization of international defence and security cooperation with Russia, India, the United States, Japan and China over the last five years.

Vietnam’s Defence and Security Cooperation with Major Powers

Monday, 6 June 2016 – As Vietnam attracts increasing international attention due to its involvement in the South China Sea disputes and its emergence as a notable regional geo-strategic player, it’s important to understand Vietnam’s defence policy in general and its military engagement with major powers in particular. Against this backdrop, the Vietnam Studies Programme at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute hosted a public seminar to examine the topic on 6 June 2016. The seminar was presented by Professor Carlyle A. Thayer, a leading expert on Vietnam’s foreign and defence policy, and chaired by ISEAS Senior Fellow Daljit Singh.

Professor Thayer started the seminar by providing an overview of Vietnam’s foreign policy of “multilateralization and diversification” and its efforts to deepen ties with major powers by pursuing “comprehensive” or “strategic partnerships” with them. For the purpose of the seminar, he focused on Vietnam’s partnerships with Russia, India, Japan, China, and the United States, and how these partnerships fit into Vietnam’s broader foreign policy agenda as well as its efforts to enhance its strategic posture in the region.

On the Vietnam – Russia strategic partnership, which was established in 2001, Prof. Thayer noted the role Russia has played in Vietnam’s gradual force modernization, especially the weapons and military equipment that Vietnam has acquired from Moscow. He also highlighted the significance of bilateral visits by high ranking military officials, such as those by Russian Defence Minister Sergey Shoygu to Cam Ranh Bay in March 2013, or by Vietnam’s new Defence Minister Ngo Xuan Lich to Moscow in April 2016.

Analyzing the Vietnam – India strategic partnership, Prof. Thayer noted the intensified military interactions between the two countries in recent years. They are now holding annual strategic dialogues at vice ministerial level, and have stepped up cooperation in defence supplies, capacity building, technical assistance, training and intelligence exchange. Their cooperation is partly facilitated by the fact that both of them have been major importers of Russian weapon platforms and military technologies.

Regarding Vietnam – Japan relations, Prof. Thayer highlighted the strong economic foundations of their partnership. In recent years, the two have intensified defence cooperation, partly due to their shared concerns over the South China Sea disputes. Accordingly, there have been various high-level military exchanges, naval port visits, as well as cooperation programmes in other fields, especially training and capacity building. It is also noteworthy that Japan donated 6 patrol vessels to the Vietnam Coast Guard in November 2015 to help enhance the country’s maritime capabilities.

Finally, Prof. Thayer compared and contrasted Vietnam’s military engagements with China and the United States. He noted that Vietnam and China have maintained considerable military connections, through various avenues such as strategic defence dialogues, border cooperation, or joint naval patrol in the Tonkin Gulf. China has also assisted Vietnam to prepare for its participation in peace-keeping missions. However, bilateral relations in general and military ties in particular have been constrained to a considerable extent by the South China Sea disputes.

Against this backdrop, Vietnam’s defence and security relations with the US have been strengthened, partly due to their increasing convergence of strategic interests in the South China Sea. Accordingly, Prof. Thayer reviewed the evolution of bilateral defence engagements since 2006, and provided an in-depth analysis of the Joint Vision Statement on Defence Cooperation announced in June 2015. He also elaborated on the significance of defence agreements reached during President Obama’s visit to Vietnam last month, including the US decision to fully lift its long-standing lethal arms embargo on the country.

In his conclusion, Prof. Thayer opined that Vietnam has intensified its military engagements with major powers as a measure to enhance its strategic position and to leverage its broader external relations.  During this process, Vietnam seeks to give each major power “equity in its stability and development in order to ensure its non-alignment and strategic autonomy”.

More than 30 participants attended the seminar.

Photos: ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute